YWCA Old Bags Luncheon: Benefit raises domestic abuse awareness in style

The annual YWCA of Greenwich’s Old Bags Luncheon was a chance to put on your very best and bid on exclusive handbags, but it was also done with a purpose to benefit the organization’s 24/7 free domestic abuse services. From left, Domestic Abuse Services Director Suzanne Adam, event co-chairs Cindy Leaman and Mary Ann Henry, YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer and co-chairs Carol Purse and Susan Arturi. — John Ferris Robben photo

The annual YWCA of Greenwich’s Old Bags Luncheon was a chance to put on your very best and bid on exclusive handbags, but it was also done with a purpose to benefit the organization’s 24/7 free domestic abuse services. From left, Domestic Abuse Services Director Suzanne Adam, event co-chairs Cindy Leaman and Mary Ann Henry, YWCA President and CEO Adrianne Singer and co-chairs Carol Purse and Susan Arturi.— John Ferris Robben photo

“No woman can do this alone.”

They’re the words of a domestic abuse victim who goes by the name Mary, and she is one of thousands in town who rely on the YWCA of Greenwich’s free domestic abuse services each year.

Fortunately, events like last week’s eighth annual Old Bags Luncheon help raise funds that contribute exclusively to the $2 million per year spent by the organization on counseling, shelters, court advocacy, emergency hotlines, and education for domestic abuse victims.

A sellout since its inception in 2006, the luncheon features live and silent auctions of new and gently used handbags donated by individuals, manufacturers and retailers from all over Greenwich to benefit domestic abuse programs at the YWCA — the sole licensed provider of domestic abuse services in town, offering a full range of free, 24-hour services to victims.

“It’s very important that we’re able to treat those that need our help,” said Adrianne Singer, president and CEO of the YWCA of Greenwich.

According to Ms. Singer, the number of domestic abuse victims sheltered by the YWCA has more than doubled since last year. She attributes the increase, in part, to a second emergency hotline added to the Y’s services this year in conjunction with the Greenwich Police Department. Using the “lethality” hotline, officers are able to call YWCA staff at any time of day or night after a domestic violence incident occurs in which the victim is determined to be in immediate danger.

Mary, who attended the event as an anonymous guest speaker, shared her experience as a victim of domestic abuse and as a recipient of the Y’s services.

“It’s important to have someone speak,” Ms. Singer said. “Not everyone here has ever been to the luncheon before, so they learn about how domestic violence affects people in our community.”

Statistics show that a staggering one in four U.S. women will experience domestic abuse at some point in her life, making the luncheon a significant learning experience for attendees, Ms. Singer said.

Suzanne Adam, director of the YWCA’s domestic abuse services, agreed, saying the Old Bags Luncheon was important not only to raise funds for victims but also to create awareness in the community. Those who attend the event learn more about the domestic abuse services available to them, whether for themselves or a loved one

New to this year’s luncheon was a pashmina project arranged by organizers, said event co-chair Susan Arturi. Each attendee was presented with a pashmina of a certain color at her table, with one out of every four being purple — the color used in association with domestic abuse awareness. During the luncheon, those in possession of a purple pashmina were asked to stand at their tables to represent the one in four women in the country who experience domestic violence in their lifetime, Ms. Arturi said.

The impact of such a project is immense, according to Ms. Adam. It is a tool used to overcome stigmas associated with domestic abuse, she said. Since attendees did not know the significance of the project until those with purple pashminas were asked to stand, it was an eye-opener for many. The project visibly proved that a victim of domestic violence could be the friend or relative sitting in the next seat, and might even represent oneself, she said.

In fact, Ms. Adam said, in a preliminary test conducted at a staff meeting, the pashmina project was proven to do its job quite successfully. Unbeknownst to Ms. Adam, a staff member who had received a purple pashmina and was therefore asked to stand had previously been a victim of domestic abuse. The woman was “very rattled” and felt as if she had a “scarlet letter” on her, yet no one else had known she was a domestic violence victim, Ms. Adam said.

It just goes to show how much of the community is impacted by the issue and that you never know who a victim might be, she added.

As women milled about the Belle Haven Club scanning bags of every style and color and bidding on their favorites, the Old Bags Luncheon may have looked like a lighthearted occasion to an outsider, but its purpose was not forgotten.

In an interview with the Post, Mary spoke of the impact the YWCA’s domestic abuse services have had on her life. The “superb” programs, she said, are unusual both in their existence and in how well-structured they are. It’s unusual for a police department and an organization like the Y to collaborate as well as they do in Greenwich, she said, adding that the services are “incredibly, incredibly, incredibly important” for the town’s domestic abuse victims.

When Mary, a 25-year resident, initially fled her marriage, she said, she also fled the town. It was only after she had found the courage to move back to town that she, at the suggestion of Greenwich police Lt. Richard Cochran,  sought out the YWCA’s services.

“It took me a very long time to be willing to get help in the town of Greenwich because this is my children’s town and I did not want them to be stigmatized by what happened to me,” Mary said.

The YWCA program that helped Mary on her journey to healing was for women who had been through the initial stages of separation from the abuser and who were now focused on rebuilding their lives.

There are two stages to dealing with domestic violence, Mary said. One part is initially surviving, and the second part is “finding the pieces of yourself and getting a sense of who you are again and putting yourself together again,” she said. The domestic abuse program she participated in was “profoundly helpful” and essential to financially and professionally picking up the pieces of her life, she said.

In retrospect, Mary said, she wishes she had left her husband sooner, and she encourages women in similar circumstances to leave as soon as possible.

“I stayed in my marriage as long as I did for my children,” Mary said. “I was married to someone with a horrible temper, and I stayed in my marriage to protect them.”

“The hardest lesson for women to learn is that there is no shame” in being a victim of domestic violence, Mary said. “You have to be very careful about the role model that you are,” she said, adding  it was vital to her that she set an example of strength for her children.

With the assistance of the YWCA, Mary said, she is a top-10 business school graduate who has finally recovered her career.

“I say that only because this happens to everyone and it’s important to understand that,” Mary said of her status as an elite businesswoman.

Now back to work, Mary has managed to reclaim her career “beautifully,” she said. But her ex-husband has found her twice, despite her enrollment in the witness protection program, so she keeps her place of employment under wraps.

It is because of the YWCA’s domestic violence services that Mary has been able to start her life anew, she said.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am today without them.”

 

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